A New Code for the Co-ed?

The benefits of co-education, states the author, outnumber its shortcomings

W. SHERWOOD FOX October 1 1935

A New Code for the Co-ed?

The benefits of co-education, states the author, outnumber its shortcomings

W. SHERWOOD FOX October 1 1935

A New Code for the Co-ed?

The benefits of co-education, states the author, outnumber its shortcomings


SIX MEN from six walks of life were gathered about a friendly grate-fire, all of them in a mood to talk about anything under the sun. Somehow the conversation drifted to that enticing subject of countless phases, the place of woman in modern life. Suddenly, like a boat striking a sandbar, it came to rest on one of the most debatable phases, co-education. The six wiseacres, being ignorant of the subject in at least six different ways, could make no headway.

Indeed, their situation was even more ridiculous than that; they found they were talking about six or more different things. For instance, co-education in primary schools, co-education in the high school, co-education in the university, co-education on every continent and in every country. Of course, they could get nowhere. What they had done, in effect, was to attempt to solve the problem of the ages, the Eternal Question, the problem that ever since the beginning of the race has defied the attempted solutions of patriarchs, prophets, pundits and princes, of whom Solomon was not the least. Realizing their impertinence, they adjourned the debate until they could narrow the subject down to a single one of its many phases. So far as I know, they have never as a group taken up the subject again.

Now the best parables are not fictions but situations in real life. This true story is an excellent parable, for in their attitude toward co-education these half-dozen know-it-alls represent a cross-section of society. So we must take warning from their floundering, and at the start fix our attention upon one phase of our subject only—co-education at the university level. The policy has at least two merits: This phase is the one about which the present writer is least ignorant ; and it is the one in which, thanks largely to the Movies, the public is most keenly interested and most grossly misinformed.

Doubtless it was credulous reliance upon a so-called college magazine as a pure and abundant fountain-head of collegiate information that recently inspired a wag to beg the question: “Isn’t it about time that somebody drew up a

new code for the co-ed?” The play on words, though an atrocious one, is really a saving grace, for it shows that the questioner has enough sense of humor left to reveal an open mind.

Perhaps the facts concerning co-education at the university level may make this punster—and possibly some of the rest ol us also—less cocksure as to what the answer to the question ought to be. The common understanding of the origin of co-education is as much a myth as that warts come from touching toads. It is popularly assumed that it had its beginning in the arbitrary decree of some archminister of education somewhere, an unnatural creature who, smiling contemptuously at the ancient statement, “Male and female created He them,” said, “Come, let us forget it.” And so he and his tribe of successors everywhere have been forgetting ever since “that these boys and these girls have different functions in life.” The clear simplicity of this view has a most delightful appeal. Unfortunately, however, it is not true. Besides, it carries with it the embarrassing inference that what was arbitrarily established contrary to nature can be arbitrarily disestablished. All one has to do, then, is to pass a law unscrambling co-education, and behold! it is unscrambled.

How Co-education Started

NOW FOR a little history. As the world now knows, the power that dominated the first settlers in the Atlantic colonies of North America was not the desire for religious liberty, but rather an irresistible conviction that formal education was the magic by which society could be transformed. The school as the instrument of education could raise underprivileged commoners to greatness, and thus create a great new nation of superior citizens. As soon as a community of dwelling houses sprang up, a schoolhouse was added as a natural member of it. Doubtless if the colonists had been affluent they would have followed as a matter ot course the educational example of the lands from which they had come, and would have erected separate buildings in which to give girls the niggardly, namby-pamby education that was the fashion in those days. But as it was, they were a poor folk and could not afford two sets of schools. If the girls were to get any formal education at all, they had to get it along with the boys.

And that was exactly how they got it—first in the common school, then in the high school, and, finally, beginning in 1833. in the college. The last step was a most natural one after the experience of schooling several generations of boys and girls together in the primary and secondary grades. In the first stages of co-education deliberation was a factor only so far as the colonists deliberately studied and followed the

dictates of their poverty. At that time they were as far from holding a theory of co-education as from conceiving the modern theory of relativity. Co-education was the child of necessity.

Many of mankind’s greatest boons have been the result of chance discoveries. The accidental institution of co-education in the United States has been a benefit to the whole world. Far from perfect though it be, it has solved a host of problems at one stroke. It has established the principle of admitting women to higher education. It has given them this education without entailing an increase in public expenditures at all proportionate to the increase in total numbers of students enrolled. It has given the other countries of the world an opportunity to observe, at no cost to themselves, a novel and important experiment.

Undoubtedly the world approved of the experiment as a practical proposition. About fifty years ago, Canada, England, Scotland, Europe, began introducing co-education into their universities. It is now almost the uniform policy of the world. The separate colleges and universities for men and women—the Oxfords, the Vassars, the Princetons—are today a small minority. This, of course, is nothing against them, for their type cannot be dispensed with. The success of an experiment depends upon the opportunity of studying differences and contrasts.

Benefits Outnumber Shortcomings

T) UT WHAT has all this to do with the principle of coU education? It is nothing but the old appeal to size and numbers and proves nothing.” But in this case numbers do prove something, for our survey indicates that civilization has not been stampeded into a general adoption of higher co-education, and regards the benefits of the system as far more numerous than its shortcomings.

Co-education is very like Stephenson’s locomotive; in practice it has demolished the insuperable objections urged against it. We laugh at them now. “Women are men’s intellectual inferiors; they can never keep pace with men in academic attainment.” The records of three-quarters of a century of co-education have proved this idea to be wholly a myth, an inheritance from a remote and very prejudiced antiquity. A learned professor who not a century ago delivered the inaugural address of the old Queen’s College, Harley Street, London, is said to have included in his remarks, “an elaborate deprecation of teaching girls anything thoroughly.” Of course, the dear sweet things hadn’t intellect enough for anything thorough and profound !

But the objector retorts with a flattering concession: “Well, perhaps their mind may be as good as men’s, but it is different.” If it is so very different, why, then, do the separate women’s colleges not offer markedly different curricula from those of the men’s colleges? The truth is that, with few exceptions, the courses in the two types of colleges are almost identical. A study of the choice of courses in colleges in the Western States showed that in the co-educational institutions more men than women elected mathematics and the sciences, and more women than men elected languages and literature. In the non-co-educational colleges men and women elected the same courses.

The divergences noted above seem to be due to differences in vocational interests rather than to interests naturally due to sex. Experiments designed to discover courses of higher studies peculiarly adapted to women alone are being conducted in several places—for example, at the new college for women at Bennington, Vermont—but as yet the results have not even been finally announced. Educators are awaiting with open minds the publication of the findings.

Undoubtedly the desire of women to enter universities on a parity with men has been grossly misunderstood. They regard universities as institutions that exist primarily for the benefit of human beings. As human beings, women ask for the opportunity which, through social accident, men alone have enjoyed through the centuries. They say that, broadly speaking, there is no “male learning,” no “female learning.” Dare anyone claim that the great creative works are for either sex alone? The elements of the higher lifeindustry, the spirit of service, thought, friendship, affection and justice—are the heritage of men and women alike.

Preparation for Marriage

AN OLD-FASHIONED objection to co-education had it -¿Vthat “boys will make the girls rough and girls will make the boys sentimental.” This ridiculously begs the question that boys are inevitably rough and girls are inevitably sentimental. The actual results of university co-education contradict the statement flatly. Whatever may be the special combinations of qualities that dominate young women and young men respectively, three generations of co-education have shown that, by interaction, these groups of qualities have so modified each other as to prepare young people to live naturally and with a minimum of restraint the joint social life that men and women are expected to live in the great world of human affairs that comes after college.

The existence of differences between boys and girls, men and women—differences ot function, of aptitudes, and of modes of development—we all admit. But many of those who would sweep co-education off the face of the earth generalize very dangerously about such differences. “A boy is a boy and will grow into a man—restless, adventurous, creative, active, a maker—while the girl under normal conditions grows calm, homeloving, receptive, passive, a user.” This is a sample of perilous generalization. As if all boys were like this epic hero ! And all girls like this clinging vine ! They are both creatures of the story-book and the film. Modem educators know that the similarities of boys and girls of college age are very much more numerous than their differences.

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A New Code for the Co-ed ?

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The contradictions among objectors are amusing. Some say that the love affairs made possible by collegiate co-education defeat the purpose of education. Others assert that all higher education for women discourages marriage. Investigation has shown that more co-eds marry than graduates ol separate women’s colleges, and. better still, they marry on an average a year earlier. Of course, this does not entirely dispose of the first objection; indeed, one might even twist it into proving it. However, to do that one would have to show that this majority of co-eds married men with whom they fell in love in college. Perhaps they did; I do not know. I do know, however, that nearly all the marriages of this origin that I have observed are very happy. Apparently the close association afforded by college life has given the brides and grooms an exceptional opportunity of knowing, before they approach the altar, just whom they are about to marry. Surely, in these days of loose marriage ties such an outcome ought not to damn coeducation.

Censure Will Decline

BUT TO return to the humorist’s question.

Do we need a new code for the co-ed? Yes, I believe we do, but no more than we need one for any other type of student. Real education is always in a flux. By its very nature it cannot be static. The change required in co-education is not a revolutionary one, but rather the leisurely evolution that has marked the growth of the British constitution.

The conspicuous shortcoming of co-education, as I see it, is its tendency to divert

from higher academic aims students of both sexes who have entered university with no definite interest in the higher learning. But according to my observation it is also the chief shortcoming of the separate college for either sex. This tendency operates chiefly in the first two years. One must bear in mind that in North America it is only the senior and graduate years that correspond closely to university years proper in Britain and Europe. In neither the British and European universities nor in the graduate schools of America, is co-education subjected to any serious criticism.

There is every reason to believe that the censure undergraduate co-education receives in North America will decline gradually, perhaps even rapidly, for the reason that at the present time all active and projected relorms of university education are tending to classify freshmen and sophomore years as the last years of secondary schooling rather than as the first years of the higher learning. The more the first two years are made the sieve for separating the purposeless from the purix>scful, the less will be the tendency of co-education to encourage frittering away time and energy in an excess of social activities. The same result will be effected in the separate colleges. This process of sifting is already under way in both Canada and the United States under many names— elimination of first year Pass Courses, the establishment of Junior Colleges, and. within universities, the institution of Junior Divisions. There is a real significance in the observation of the British educator who said that “education itself must be reshaped, reinspired, before co-education can have full effect.”

In the field of women’s education in Canada the greatest weakness is not co-education, but rather the lack of a contrast to it. As yet the country does not possess a university or a college existing solely for women and comparable to independent institutions like Bryn Mawr or Wellesley, or affiliated colleges like Radcliffe within Harvard, or Barnard within Columbia. The contrast between the prevailing co-educational university and one or two exclusive institutions like these would actually stimulate the improvement of co-education in Canada.